ATLANTA — One year ago, eight people were shot to death inside three area spas in two counties by a single, disturbed 21-year-old gunman, trying to shoot his way out of his perceived problems.
Among the eight people he killed were six women of Asian descent who worked at the spas.
A year later, the grief is still raw as the prosecutor in one county continues to pursue the death penalty against the killer. Meanwhile, anti-Asian violence across the country continues, even as families of the people he killed work with activists to combat it with renewed commitment.
On the afternoon of March 16, 2021, all anyone knew was that someone had walked through a spa on Highway 92 in Acworth, in Cherokee County, Youngs Asian Massage, shooting people inside.
Marcus Lyon, a witness, recalled hearing the gunfire, quickly realizing he and everyone else inside was in danger.
“We heard another gunshot,” Lyon told 11Alive a year ago. "That’s when I dove and hid behind the bed.”
The woman who’d been giving him a massage was among those who were shot and killed.
“I saw her fall,” Lyon said. “That was, like, wow, I’m about to die.”
All together, four people were killed there; Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Ashley Yaun-Gonzalez, and Paul Andre Michels. A fifth person in the spa, Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, was shot in the face by the gunman but survived.
Less than an hour later and miles away in Fulton County, there was more gunfire as more people were shot at two more spas.
The gunshots alerted those who worked in nearby businesses.
“We just heard numerous gunshots,” said Nacirema Marcelle, who raced outside of her business to find out four people had been killed.
Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant would later confirm at the scene that three people were shot and killed at Gold Spa, and one person was shot and killed at Aromatherapy Spa across the street.
The four people killed were all women who worked at the spas, Soon Chung Park, Sun Cha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, and Hyun Jung Grant.
Atlanta spa shooting victims
Atlanta police and the Cherokee County Sheriff’s investigators were soon focusing on finding a single suspect.
A security camera outside the spa in Acworth recorded a white man, Robert Aaron Long, entering and leaving just before and after the shootings. When Long’s parents saw the image that investigators released to the news media, they called to let them know who he was and how police could track him using the locater app they’d installed on his cell phone.
That night, police captured Long on I-75 in Crisp County, 150 miles to the south, while he was driving to Florida to try to shoot more people at more spas, he confessed.
"The defendant’s rationale for this crime is sick and twisted," Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace concluded on July 27, the day the gunman entered guilty pleas in a Cherokee County courtroom for the murders in Acworth.
Long claimed he was ashamed of himself, hated himself, and also blamed others at the spas for his personal failures.
In response, Wallace added, "the fact is, there’s no one to blame for the defendant’s failures and sins but the defendant himself."
Long was blaming people he never knew; he told the judge in Cherokee County that he never even knew their names.
"I don’t recall thinking much after I pulled the trigger," Long told the judge.
Long worked at a landscaping business, and that morning his boss told everyone not to come to work because of the rain.
Long explained to the judge that he watched porn all morning at home, then, disgusted with himself, thought his only way out was suicide.
He said he'd been through extensive therapy, treatment, and counseling to try to control his obsessions with porn, and with massage parlors where he claimed he paid for sex.
"I wanted to kill myself" that day, Long told the judge at his plea hearing, because of "feelings of hopelessness in my sexual struggles."
Long said he drove to a gun shop in Holly Springs and picked out a 9mm handgun. He tried to pay with his debit card, but his account was overdrawn, and his credit card had maxed out.
He drove to a bank and cashed his latest paycheck of about $750, then drove back to the gun shop to pay cash for the gun and for a box of 50 rounds of ammunition.
Long then drove to a liquor store, bought a fifth of bourbon, and began drinking.
"I decided to get drunk to try and calm my nerves. I was scared of killing myself and wanted to try and overcome that. So, I went out to a liquor store and bought the bottle of bourbon, and took a few sips of it there in the parking lot, and proceeded to go Youngs Asian Massage," where, he said, he had been a frequent customer.
Long drove to the Youngs Asian Massage spa, located in a small strip mall on Highway 92 in Acworth, about 15 minutes away from the liquor store, then parked right in front.
"My hope was that I would hate myself enough at that point, and possess enough self-loathing, to do in my own life," he explained.
He continued drinking.
"Sat there for about an hour drinking out of the bottle, trying to decide if I wanted to go in or just end it then and there," Long explained, adding that he started feeling drunk. "At that time period, while I was sitting in the car, was when I began thinking about killing other people inside there. It was, in essence, a blame-shifting from myself onto them for my actions.”
Long said he walked inside and paid cash for a massage, and an hour later got dressed and opened fire, walking through the business, indiscriminately shooting at whomever he saw, not recognizing anyone, he said, even though he claimed he’d been a frequent customer.
Long then south on I-75 to Piedmont Road in Atlanta and continued his attacks, opening fire at two more spas, killing four more people.
He later pleaded guilty to the Cherokee County crimes in order to avoid the death penalty there; the families of those he killed in Acworth agreed to the deal.
His sentence included four, consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“All of the victims in this case are innocent,” the judge, Ellen McElyea, said from the bench. “None of them deserved the fate that was visited upon them by Mr. Long. Once hatred is given a gun, it doesn’t matter who gets in the way.”
District Attorney Wallace said later she was prepared not only to seek the death penalty against Long, but also to prosecute him for hate crimes against women. She called him "a cold-blooded murderer."
“He wasn’t even looking at them as if they’re humans, he’s treating them as targets,” she told 11Alive.
Long still faces prosecution in Fulton County for his crimes there, “a case that warrants the ultimate penalty," of death, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis said last year. “We do not have another case with that much loss of life.”
Willis added she also intends to try Long on hate crimes charges, based on the race and sex of the four people he killed in Fulton County.
Long has pleaded not guilty in Fulton County as his public defenders work on trying to reach a plea deal that would take the death penalty off of the table.
In a statement, Long's attorneys said their goal a year after the tragic events are to heal and find a resolution.
"On this anniversary of the shocking and tragic events in Cherokee and Fulton County, counsel Robert Long and his family offer our deepest sympathies to the victims' families and their communities. Though we can never fully comprehend the pain the families and the community feel, we share in the collective goal of beginning the healing process. We are committed to moving towards a resolution while meeting our ethical and legal obligations required by the Georgia Supreme Court and the United States Constitution when the State is seeking the death penalty."
However, Willis has said she has no intention of removing the death notice.
The next hearing in the court case is scheduled to take place at the Fulton County courthouse in April.
A trial is possibly years away.